Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Morning After - tohoku earthquake part three

Morning arrived in the form of the generator's low hum; a murmur of voices; the footsteps, discernible somehow, of people at task. I crawled out of my futon (everyone I'd offered it to - elderly women, infant-coddling mothers, even the girl who literally fell asleep on her knees on the bare hardwood - had declined in favor of their own measly blankets) and looked around at a gymnasium filled with sunlight. People were up and about, moving not so much with purpose as with a desire for purpose. A few still reclined where they had slept, or not slept. Many stood in a line that stretched halfway around the room and ran right past the edges of my comforter. In shorts and a t-shirt I folded everything into a less obtrusive pile. The people at whose feet I'd just been sleeping pretended not to notice or care.

At the long tables against the far wall men and women handed out rice balls and tea. My wife was already on line, both our boys hanging onto her. I caught her eye and she motioned for me to join her; food was being carefully rationed out and they might not have given her any extra rice for a husband she'd claim was still asleep in that oversized lump of bedding over there. Although with our own leftover rice from home, along with some crackers and bread and peanut butter and juice, we weren't living on the edge of survival. Not yet.

Overnight the sheltered masses had sat nervously, clutching their blankets and murmuring louder with each successive aftershock.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Calm Amid Calamity -- tohoku earthquake part two

I walked into the dark front hall of the Shimizu Learning Center. A man in a blue windbreaker approached, moving with an efficiency that told me he was at work though in what capacity I had no idea. What was the situation here, or anywhere else? What had really happened, and what needed to be done? I hadn't seen any damage. A distant siren bled through the hum of a single generator; outside the glass doors a circle of men dressed in shadows watched over a huge pot of water, slowly warming over a propane flame.

I suppose I expected to be received in some way, for someone in a dark blue windbreaker to ask me my name, if I was all right and did I come with any family. I waited for direction but the man kept walking, by my shoulder and out into the wind and the returning snow. More figures appeared, out of the black corridors ahead and the blustery darkness behind. A couple of them held flashlights. They traded scant words as they passed each other. No one spoke to me. No lines, no people with clipboards. Barely a sound besides that generator. The siren in the distance faded and died. Something was going on here - but what? I wondered if we had come to the wrong place.

Yet the parking lot outside was full; my wife was waiting out there with our two boys, along with enough food and blankets, we hoped, to get us through the night. There had to be others. I walked down the left corridor, drawn to a softly-illuminated doorway and a murmur of voices. At the bottom of a single step a dozen pairs of shoes lie in semi-disarray. I kicked off my battered sneakers and stepped inside.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Where Fear Lies -- tohoku earthquake part one

With a cheap driver I worked the tiny screw on the back of my son's toy microwave oven. He likes to play restaurant every now and then, making me fish pizza and croissant soup or whatever strikes his blossoming imagination. Then he tells me to 'sit here and eat'. I couldn't remember those words coming from him lately though so maybe the batteries in there still had some juice.

The sky outside was growing dim.

I am so not prepared for this.


Quarter to three in the afternoon; my son is sitting at a kid-sized table with his friends at the Shinryo pre-school, chomping on cookies and drinking cold tea. The other kids are there with their moms. Both teachers in the room are women. I'm the only adult male, and though they all say it's great that my son could be there today with his 'O-to-san' I'm feeling a bit out of place. I stir my paper cup of coffee and watch my son interact with the other kids in effortless Japanese.

All along the coast, from Fukushima up through Miyagi and into Iwate, fishermen in slickers and rubber boots and weathered skin tie off their nets and head to bed. Their wives sit on the floor on straw mats pouring tea, alone or with friends, glancing outside at the slowly warming March weather. Young children play and shriek and eat cookies at schools just like Shinryo. All along the coast.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bathrobes and Beer: The Japanese Ryokan Experience - A Year in Fukushima #9

Japan boasts a considerable array of accommodation options – to put it in cheesy tourist pamphlet terms. Capsule hotels, business hotels, love hotels; the Hilton and the Hyatt and the Japanese versions of such; you have your youth hostels (thirty dollars with membership) and your campgrounds (thirty dollars without); and on the traditional side, you’ve got your minshuku, with tatami floors, futons and green tea to make yourself comfy as you watch your coin-operated 13-inch television, and then you have your more upscale ryokan, with tatami floors, futons and green tea to make yourself extra comfy as you relax and watch your wide screen high-definition plasma television.

In the course of my travels around Japan, when not camping (illegally) or sleeping on a beach or a gazebo in a park (maybe legally), I’ve rucked up to many a minshuku. They give you those robes to hang out in, and dinner and breakfast are included so why not? I’m not much of a TV guy however so I never sprang for the more expensive ryokan. And if my wife hadn’t finagled a sweet deal at Azuma-So up the road in Iizaka last weekend I might very well have ended up leaving Japan – or dying – without ever experiencing a wide plasma screen while hanging out on the floor drinking tea in someone else’s bath robe.